Toronto FC has touted its depth all season. Now comes perhaps the ultimate test — an Eastern conference final against Columbus Crew SC with stars strikers Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco suspended for Game 1.
On the plus side, the league leaders have done it before — and won big. Toronto routed Columbus 5-0 at BMO Field on May 26 without Altidore (suspended) and Giovinco (injured).
And Toronto lost 2-1 in Columbus on April 15 in the only game against Crew SC this season that both Altidore and Giovinco started.
In their only other meeting this year, visiting Toronto defeated Columbus 2-1 on May 10 with an injured Giovinco (heel) watching and Altidore playing the lone striker, ahead of Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez. Backup striker Tosaint Ricketts scored twice off the bench.
Toronto's eight goals against Columbus this season came from Ricketts (two), Vazquez (two), Altidore, Justin Morrow, Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton.
Toronto has appealed Altidore's red card from Game 2 of the conference semifinal Sunday, arguing he was the victim rather than the aggressor in the halftime tunnel melee that also saw Red Bulls skipper Sacha Kljestan ejected.
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Barring a reprieve, Ricketts will likely lead the attack in Columbus. The pacey Canadian international had seven goals and an assist in 22 games (including nine starts) this season. Two of those goals came Sept. 16 in Los Angeles when Toronto, without Altidore and Giovinco in the lineup, blanked the Galaxy 4-0.
"Tos should be chomping at the bit right now for a chance to go make a big difference," Toronto coach Greg Vanney said of Ricketts. "I know he'll be ready."
Vazquez, who can score goals as well as set them up, will also play a key part in the series.
With an international break delaying matters, the Eastern Conference final doesn't open until Nov. 21 in Columbus. The return leg is Nov. 29 at BMO Field.
"We need to go there and get something out of it," Vanney said of the series opener at Mapfre Stadium. "We did a good job of doing that in the New York series [where Toronto won Game 1 2-1]."
Both Toronto and Columbus advanced despite losing the second leg of their semifinals Sunday.
Toronto was beaten 1-0 by the sixth-seeded New York Red Bulls at BMO Field but moved on thanks to the away goals rule after the series ended tied 2-2.
Fifth-seeded Columbus lost 2-0 to No. 2 New York City FC at Yankee Stadium but won 4-3 on aggregate.
Columbus hot of late
Columbus (16-12-6) finished 15 points below Toronto (20-5-9) in the standings this season. But it has been hot of late.
"A different matchup because they'll play soccer and they'll try to break you down and they'll try to play with the ball," said Vanney, in a clear dig at the Red Bulls. "Very tactical, I think, in their approach.
"I have a great deal of respect for what (Columbus coach Gregg) Berhalter tries to do with his team .. I think it's going to be an interesting matchup."
Despite an uncertain future off the field with owner Anthony Precourt exploring a move to Austin, Texas, Columbus has been on a roll. Prior to Sunday's loss, Columbus was unbeaten in 12 games (8-0-4) since an Aug. 5 loss in San Jose.
Both sides enjoyed record home campaigns with Toronto 13-1-3 and Columbus 12-3-2.
Altidore (16 goals) and Giovinco (15) accounted for 42 per cent of Toronto's league-leading 74 goals this season. That included nine game-winning goals.
They took 45 per cent of the team's shots (196 of 440) and 49 per cent (82 of 168) of the shots on target. The duo also handled eight of TFC's 11 penalties this season.
Vazquez and Morrow had eight goals apiece. In addition to Ricketts, 10 other TFC players scored this season.
Norwegian international Ola Kamara led Columbus in scoring with 18 goals while American-born Iraq international Justin Meram added seven.
Veteran Argentine playmaker Federico Higuain had 14 assists to go along with his nine goals.